Engineers and Scientists Get the Gift of the Gab

Bob the Stem Cell, all squiggly lines and eyes, stares out from under a hard hat at an audience of 500 people in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre.

“He was a construction worker once, and built up all our bodies,” the presenter, Thomas Schwarzl, is explaining, one hand on a microphone and the other gesturing at Bob, whose caricature is projected on a screen. “Now he’s just lazy,” dozing unproductively in bone marrow, even as wear and tear breaks down backs and joints.

“What if I told you you could now take Bob and wake him up, reactivate him, and say, ‘Come on, let’s repair these things?” Schwarzl asks enthusiastically, fueling a palpable sense of expectation in the room.

That’s the goal of Schwarzl and his fellow biotechnologists. But it’s unlikely that their work has ever been described so comprehensibly to non-scientists.

Schwarzl is competing in Thesis in Three, a competition that started in a Dublin pub and now draws contestants from all over Ireland, in which scientists and engineers are given three minutes to explain their research to lay audiences.

It’s one of a sudden slew of programs worldwide meant not just to help the masses understand complex technology, but to encourage engineers and scientists to talk about it plainly—especially when employers are demanding communication skills, and competition has intensified for ever-scarcer research funding.

“To be able to justify your research is very important,” says Philip Smyth, who helps organize Thesis in Three. “Where the real talent is is taking something that is so complex and distilling it down to something a 10-year-old or your granny can understand.”

Or, at least, your grandmother and a 12-year-old. That’s the audience at Villanova University, where engineering students explain their work to a retiree or a 12-year-old, who, in turn, explains it to a judge.

“It can be hard sometimes to get engineers to speak up about their ideas. But we try to show them how, and make it fun,” says Edmond Dougherty, Villanova’s director of engineering entrepreneurship.

Villanova also has a program it calls Idea Karaoke, in which students have two minutes to stand up and bounce ideas off faculty and entrepreneurs, then two more minutes to take questions and suggestions. Every student gets a T-shirt for participating, and the one whose idea is voted best wins a prize.

“It used to be that you could just do your engineering work and not talk to anybody, and that was okay,” says Joanna Wolfe, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s new Global Communications Center, which opened in August. “Now we have to work in these more and more competitive environments, and being able to communicate becomes more and more important.”

Every April, students in Villanova’s engineering entrepreneurship minor are required to set up booths at an open-air “trade show” and explain their business concepts to passersby—who are polled before they leave about how well they understood the presentations.

Dougherty chokes up as he recounts the story of a student who was painfully quiet, but who, at the trade show, was surprised that he could clearly answer every question.

“Things have changed,” Dougherty says. “In the old days, a lot of the engineers were sitting in the back room and building things and doing the grassroots kinds of things that aren’t based here any more. So now our engineers have to step up.”

One way to do this at Villanova is to master the art of the elevator pitch—in an actual elevator as it rises from the basement in the engineering building to the fourth floor, a bell ringing loudly at each level. “It’s a pretty slow elevator,” Dougherty says. Rensselaer Polytechnic and the Syracuse University School of Information Studies also have annual elevator pitch competitions inside real elevators.

“We’re not trying to turn our engineers into accountants or marketing people,” Dougherty says. “But they need to be able to communicate properly with the accountants and the marketing people.”

Engineering students at the University of Delaware can opt to describe their work to the public, using props (but not slides) in the slightly roomier confines of a local tavern. Also at that university, engineers and journalism students pair up, the journalists to learn about engineering, and the engineers about communicating. And PhD Comics sponsors a video competition called the Two-Minute Thesis.

“The technology questions we’re trying to answer have more and more social relevance—climate change, genetic engineering, nanotechnology,” says Alex Mayer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Tech who has an National Science Foundation grant to teach graduate students how to communicate by sending them to speak in high schools. “We need the public on our side. They write the checks, they pay the taxes, and they elect the people who make the decisions.”

Speaking in front of 500 people about her work, a water-sensor technology “was nerve-racking,” Deirdre Cogan says. Cogan who won last year’s Thesis in Three (Schwarzl was the runner-up). “But now I have this new-found confidence that I can use terminology that anyone can understand.”

Photo courtesy of Thesis in Three

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